Dirty Computer is hard to explain. It’s fairly easy to describe—it’s a fifty-six minute short film (or “emotion picture” as creator Janelle Monáe describes it) compilation of Monáe’s music videos for her Dirty Computer album. There’s bridging footage to contextualize the videos. It’s a dystopian future where Monáe has finally gotten busted for being “dirty.” Dirty mostly seems to mean Black and queer, but only based on the people targeted. Anything Other is “dirty,” which is one of those things Dirty ought to just go ahead and make clear and get past instead of implying until a breaking point.
The contextualizing, bridging stuff is Dirty’s biggest problem. Directors Andrew Donoho and Chuck Lightning do fine setting it up with Monáe being brought through the sterile, future deprogramming center to the big room where they’re going to zap her memories, but then the music videos start and, by the second or third one, it’s real clear the music videos are directed much better. Worse, Donoho and Lightning stumble through the dialogue scenes. They leverage Tessa Thompson, who’s Monáe’s already brainwashed ex and the only actor who can make the direction and Lightning’s script actually work, but at Monáe’s expense. It’s all going to be okay, fine, but doesn’t get to okay because their handling gets better. In fact, the framing stuff only works because of the story and how effective the music videos (and Monáe in the music videos) become.
Dirty Computer’s first staggering success is in how it contextualizes music videos (and an album both as a single release and collection of songs) in a narrative. Then comes to second ending and it seems like it’s going to chuck all that success only for Dirty to surpass itself and contextualize itself—the music video collection, the emotional picture—both in terms of its narrative and its cultural reflectiveness. With a song. An accompanying song playing over the second finish, hash-tagging the movie itself before informing the first song, informing that song’s video, informing that video’s adjoining bridges, all over it. Had Dirty not been uneven, had Donoho and Lightning just been upfront, that second peak might seem like a plateaued victory lap but since it was uneven, it did meander away from Monáe, the second peak just keeps rising. It’s awesome.
The music videos have these familiar motifs. They’ve got Thompson, they’ve got Jayson Aaron, they’ve got this retro-cyber-punk early nineties thing going on with the production design. The future still has all the same iconography, it’s just a little fetishized, which makes sense given the mainstream sterility. So there’s clearly something going on with the videos and how they relate not just to their bridges but each other. And it’s not… obvious. It has a lot to do with how Monáe’s “character” develops through the songs. Because the about-to-be-brainwashed Monáe doesn’t have control over the songs, which are her memories. Instead it’s doofus white guys Dyson Posey and Jonah Lees; only Lees isn’t as much of a doofus and even he’s able to see what’s going on. Unfortunately, Lightning takes too long for him to catch on, which ends up wasting Lees, who’s the only other actor in the scripted bridges to succeed. Though Monáe does get better after her first big dialogue scene. And, by the end, you know that scene was the directors’ fault, not hers.
Dirty Computer talks about so much. Looks at so much. It’ll go from muted to loud with a snap. The songs are excellent, the music video editing by Deji LaRay is masterful, Monáe’s performance is magnificent. Peerless, actually. Without any victory lap ego. The Dirty Computer music videos are an object lesson in superior music videos; they’re exquisitely shot, edited, photographed, but Monáe’s performance is essential. It changes with every cut in the videos, without ever losing focus, always intensifying. She’s awesome.
Dirty goes from being a collection of great music videos to a great collection of great music videos to something even more layered. Emotion picture? Maybe; but it’s the only one for now, right? Is it a great emotion picture or are emotion pictures great by definition. Only Monáe knows.
Directed by Andrew Donoho and Chuck Lightning; screenplay by Lightning, based on a story by Janelle Monáe, Nate ‘Rocket’ Wonder, and Alan Ferguson; director of photography, Todd Banhazl; edited by Donoho and Taylor Brusky; music by Wonder and Wynne Bennett; production designer, Fernanda Guerrero; produced by Nicole Acacio and Ian Blair for Wondaland.
Music videos written and directed by Ferguson, Emma Westenberg, Donoho, and Lacey Duke; edited by Deji LaRay; produced by Justin Benoliel, Judy Craig, Melissa Ekholm, Maya Table, and Blair.
Starring Janelle Monáe (Jane 57821), Tessa Thompson (Zen), Jayson Aaron (Ché), Dyson Posey (Cleaner #1), Jonah Lees (Cleaner #2), and Michele Hart (Virgin Victoria).